Birmingham City 1-0 Leeds United Six Things: defiant Blues achieve shock victory

Che Effect – bbc.co.uk

Birmingham City delivered a gutsy performance on Saturday afternoon, when Che Adams’ first half goal gave them a 1-0 victory that dealt a blow to Leeds United’s automatic promotion hopes. Here’s our Six Things from the game.

Nullifying the full-backs

Leeds left-back Barry Douglas’ injury meant Marcelo Bielsa was always very likely to deploy Luke Ayling and Ezgjan Alioski as full-backs; clearly Garry Monk put a lot of thought into the strengths and weaknesses of that duo. Ayling relishes tight spaces, because he has the speed of thought to combine sharply and intelligently with one or two teammates. Alioski, as a winger by trade, wants space just in front of him, so that he can drive forward into it. Monk’s strategy, especially in the first half, was to allow Jacques Maghoma on the left to support the press centrally and sometimes even on the right, so as to condense the space for Alioski. This simultaneously isolated Ayling, who often found himself in oceans of space without having the skillset to maximize that scenario. Although Leeds had lots of possession in the first half, therefore, they could create neither space nor overloads in the desirable areas.

Che Effect

While Blues’ game plan was spot on, they got a hint of fortune on 28 minutes. Ayling’s deep delivery picked out Patrick Bamford, who eluded Michael Morrison’s attentions but, with Lee Camp stranded in no-man’s land, could only find the post from point-blank range. That moment proved decisive because, moments later, the hosts counter-attacked through the selflessly energetic Jacques Maghoma; Lukas Jutkiewicz held the ball up for Che Adams to fire into the far bottom-hand corner in typical fashion. Adams had been without a goal in the previous six games but he looked far sharper here, with relentless first half pressing setting the tone for a dogged team display.

Midfield injuries

Gary Gardner was a steady influence in the first half but was forced off through injury at the break, before his partner, inspirational ball-winner Maikel Kieftenbeld, went off injured on 57 minutes. Blues though still summoned Kieftenbeld’s tenacious spirit, as a makeshift pairing of fit again David Davis and right-back Maxime Colin battled admirably in less than ideal circumstances, with Wes Harding also doing superbly after taking Colin’s position. Although much of the first half performance was down to Monk’s micro-detailed planning of how to stop Leeds, the second half was inevitably a more chaotic period almost impossible to navigate through tactics. That’s when the boss needed his players to put bodies on the line to deny the opposition clear cut chances at all costs – they obliged emphatically with Harlee Dean and Kristian Pedersen producing superbly committed and aggressive displays.

Leeds’ creative struggles

It’s possible that Leeds have difficulties facing two-striker systems, because Bielsa’s response to them is often to drop Kalvin Phillips into the back-three. Although the logic of that is sound – three centre-backs outnumber two strikers – it also leaves them short in the middle third. In the second half, the Whites were split into a three-man defensive unit and a further seven players trying to play their way through a rear-guard through short, intricate passes. At that stage, they needed a ‘bigger-picture’ midfielder with the vision to change the focus of play to stretch Birmingham’s rear-guard, but Phillips dropping so deep meant they did not have that option and thus, were unable to find the space they needed to initiate combination play and bring Pablo Hernandez into the game.

Another promotion race twist

Sheffield United’s 1-0 win at Preston means that, for three consecutive gameweeks, either the Blades have won at the same time as Leeds losing or vice versa – the team in the driving seat in the race for second has thus changed hands on each occasion. That highlights, if nothing else, just how absorbingly unpredictable the Championship is, in a division in which there is plenty of quality yet also competitive balance. Leeds still have a positive chance of getting second spot – but the current inconsistency of both teams means this extraordinary race looks set to go right to the wire.

Blues’ siege mentality

Culturally, Birmingham are the type of club that responds very well to adversity. After a five-game losing streak, a nine-point deduction and Monk receiving stick from Leeds fans, supporters could create the notion – accurate or not – that the whole world was against them. In many ways, that was central to the performance. This was not a perfect display from Blues, who remain limited in certain areas, but rather one in which each player gave absolutely everything to produce the best possible version of themselves. With that kind of spirit, reaching 50 points for the second time this season looks well within their grasp.